The Battle Against Evolution in Public Schools
September 9, 2020
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
The following is excerpted from The History and Heritage of Fundamentalism and Fundamental Baptists, a new book available from -
History and Heritage of Fundamentalism
Beginning in 1909, [W. B.] Riley [pastor, First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota (1897 to 1942)] conducted a national campaign against evolution. He understood that if evolution became the accepted philosophy, the moral foundations of the nation would be “swept out of their places, gnarled, twisted, torn, and finally flung on the banks of time’s tide” (“The Evolution Controversy,” Christian Fundamentals, Apr.-Jun. 1922).

This, of course, is exactly what has happened.

Riley campaigned for pastors and parents to pressure state legislatures to cleanse the public schools of evolutionary teachers and textbooks. “There are hundreds of teachers whose hands ought to be stayed from this broad-casting, and hundreds of text-books that ought to be excluded before their teachings take root in the garden of the Lord, the Home, or in the greater fields, the Church and the World” (“Shall We Tolerate Longer the Teaching of Evolution,”
Christian Fundamentals, Jan.-Mar. 1923).

Riley debated evolutionists so successfully that he had difficulty finding opponents. He conducted anti-evolutionary campaigns in Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee.

It was in Tennessee where the most significant battle took place. This was
THE SCOPES TRIAL of 1925. Earlier that year, the Tennessee legislature had passed a statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in the schools. The trial was to determine whether John Scopes was guilty of teaching evolution contrary to the new law. The trial was arranged as a showcase by the American Civil Liberties Union in their agenda to dethrone the Bible from a position of authority in American society. The ACLU chose Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes. He was an atheist and a profane man who was willing to use any trick to defend the guilty. (A year before the Scopes Trial he had defended the wealthy teenage killers Leopold and Leob who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks just for “a sort of pure love of excitement.” Darrow saved them from the death penalty with psychological mumbo-jumbo about their not being accountable for their actions.)

W.B. Riley urged his friend William Jennings Bryan to assist with the prosecution. Riley and J. Frank Norris were supposed to be at the trial, but they attended the annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention instead. The trial was a great media event. It was covered by more than 200 reporters who wrote about two million words. Sixty-five telegraph operators “sent out more words to Europe and Australia than had ever before been cabled about any American event” (R.M. Cornelius,
Scopes: Creation on Trial, p. 10). It was the first trial to be broadcast nationally on radio (by station WGN in Chicago).

Though the prosecution won the case against Scopes, the overall result was a win for evolution in America. In Tennessee, there was no further effort to stop evolution from being taught in the schools. Nationally, the media coverage was overwhelmingly geared toward allowing evolution to be taught. Anti-evolutionists were disdained as ignoramuses. (See “Evolutionary Myth-making: The Scopes Trial,” Nov. 30, 2013,

Even in his home state of Minnesota, Riley had no success in cleansing the schools of evolutionary philosophy. When a bill came before the state legislature in 1927 prohibiting tax-supported schools from teaching “that mankind either descended or ascended from a lower order of animals,” it was defeated by a margin of 55 to 7. That pretty much marked the end of the anti-evolution crusade in the public schools.

This was a great changing of the times in America. Humanism was sweeping into the public school system. The battle was lost because so few professing Christians, including pastors, cared enough to take a stand. In churches, apathy was rampant.

And the battle was lost because it was fought with carnal weapons instead of spiritual. It was fought by pragmatic thinking rather than by the Word of God. It was fought by political action campaigns with the search for political unity, which requires compromise of biblical convictions and the forming of unholy alliances.

There should have been a call for Bible-believing Christians to leave the corrupt public school system and take the biblical training of the children and youth seriously. This is done by private schools, church-operated schools, and home schools. God instructs His people to educate their children vigorously with the Scriptures (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 1:2-3; 119:9; Proverbs 2:1-22; Ephesians 6:4; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 2:1-2). And God commands His people to separate from unholy alliances and the unfruitful works of darkness (Psalm 1:1; 2 Corinthians 6:14-19; Ephesians 5:11).

The public school system in Riley’s day wasn’t as corrupt as it was later, but it was plenty corrupt when measured by Scripture. Though there were still Bible reading and prayer in the public schools in Riley’s day, many courses were already being leavened with humanistic philosophy: the world evolved, man is basically good, science is a saviour, there is no eternal judgment, morality is relative, there are multiple paths to God, man is driven by unconscious elements and is not responsible for his actions (Freudianism). And the schools in the 1920s were influenced by the jazz era, the immodest flapper dress style, the sensual modern dancing, the dating with all of its attendant evils. Public school was the most ruinous influence in my early life. It introduced me to every variety of evil. It took my heart totally away from the things of Christ. The peer pressure was nearly irresistible for a young person. And yet when I was kid, there was still almost no concern in Baptist churches for the proper education of the children according to God’s clear precepts, and that was the 1950s and 1960s.

Even fundamentalists like W.B. Riley didn’t call for separation from the public school system, and it puzzles us. God’s people are pilgrims. They shouldn’t flow along with society like lemmings. Then, again, as we will see, Riley wasn’t a separatist. He believed in trying to change things from within, though it didn’t work for him, and it never works, because it is contrary to God’s Word.

The bottom line is that the churches weren’t taking discipleship seriously enough, which means they weren’t taking the Word of God seriously enough. If Bible-believing churches had obeyed God’s Word in these fundamental things in the 1920s, they would have abandoned the public schools and provided proper education of the children. That, in turn, would have strengthened the homes and the churches, and it could have made a great difference in the nation as a whole.

W.B. Riley did a lot of good, but in many cases he fought spiritual battles with carnal weapons, and the ultimate result was defeat.

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